If you train in a martial art, you may already be doing some reading on topics related to what you’re studying. If not, you’re missing out. Martial arts books won’t make you a better fighter by themselves, make no mistake. But we both know there’s more to training than fighting… right?
What books can do for you is help you better explore the other facets of your training: personal development, spiritualism, whatever it is you’re focusing on. And you know what? If your focus IS fighting better, there are some worthwhile reads on that too. Below are five books that I consider essential if you’re interested in a more holistic approach to your martial arts training.
When asked for book recommendations by someone who has never read a martial arts book before, this is the one I tell them to read first. It’s written by Dave Lowry, who has been training for longer than I’ve been alive.
In my opinion, the book does a great job in guiding the expectations of new martial artists, as well as helping you to be able to distinguish a good dojo from a not-so-good dojo, and a good instructor from a not-so-good instructor. You don’t know the value of this until you’ve experienced both, trust me.
Some of the topics covered off in this book include how to stay motivated in your training, the importance of a rank, whether you actually need to hit things in order to improve your karate (spoiler alert: yes), and so on. There’s also some great stuff in there about martial arts philosophy (in other words, mindset) which is invaluable.
The book isn’t organized in any sort of sequential order, and that’s ok; instead, it reads like a series of essays, each of which is its own self-contained lesson or thought. The beauty of this is that you’ll get something different out of each lesson depending on where you are in your training. Over the years, I’ve read and reread this book, and I see something different in it each time. Highly recommended.
Written by Kenji Tokitsu, I recommend this book as a follow-up to The Karate Way. Fair warning: this book is much more abstract and esoteric than any other book on this list. It’s also my personal favourite of them all.
Here’s the thing about this book: it gets better and better the longer you’ve been training. The reason is that Tokitsu assumes a baseline level of competence in the martial arts in his writing. Without that, it’s an abstract book whose concepts feels out of reach. With it, it’s illuminates the direction you’re trying to go with your training.
Ultimately, this is a book about battle. It’s about defeating your opponent, about conquering yourself, and so much more. You won’t find any secret techniques in here though; that’s right, no Five-Point Palm Exploding Heart technique for you. Instead, you’ll learn about the importance of things like the rhythm of a fight, about distancing, and about how your self-defense techniques will evolve the more you practice them.
This book tells you where you’re going, not how to get there. I don’t trust any book to tell me how to get where I’m going; I have a dojo and a sensei I trust for that. But as you train, it’s important to reflect from time-to-time on whether your training is taking you in the direction you want to go. That’s where a good martial arts book comes in.
Bottom line: if you’re a white or yellow belt just starting out in the arts, it’s probably too early for you to get full value from this book. I read it at yellow belt, and 80% of it went over my head. For anyone else though, this book should be mandatory reading. This is the only book I’ll say that about in this list.
A short, concise read originally crafted by none other than the creator of the Shotokan style of karate, Gichin Funakoshi. On the surface, it’s advice for martial arts. On closer inspection, it becomes obvious that it’s also advice for life.
As its name suggests, there are twenty principles in this book. Among other things, Funakoshi once famously said “The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfect of the character of its participants.” The principles in the book do a great job of elaborating on that ideology.
Take #16, for example: When you step beyond your own gate, you face a million enemies. The message here is that being a true martial artist means being constantly vigilant and preparing to defend oneself against the many threats we face each and every day, nearly all of which are non-physical in nature.
Principle #4 also transcends martial arts: first know yourself, then know others. Advice for business, friendships, relationships… it’s just good life advice.
Again, this book won’t give you any long-hidden secrets or instant epiphanies; what it will do is give you a series of thoughts to reflect on as you further your training. It might just be that they influence who you are as a martial artist and as a person.
Another book by Dave Lowry, Moving Toward Stillness is a book that focuses very much on the development of the self. His essays deliver their lessons through the lens of martial arts, but you can easily apply them to any art form: painting, photography, cooking, carpentry, even motorcycle maintenance.
Ultimately, Dave tries to demonstrate to readers that the point of the journey is not to arrive; rather, the journey itself is the destination. Getting esoteric here, but suck it up, it’s worth it!
I know I’ve already said it, but the key to these essays (and any lesson you’re given in the martial arts) is not to take it at face value. They’re not gospel; they’re just something to add to your collection of things to consider and reflect on throughout your training. Ultimately, you’ll decide for yourself what the right path is, but in my opinion you owe it to yourself to explore as many of them as possible. This book provides a few that are definitely worth exploring.
Written in the 5th century BC by a General named Sun Tzu, this book is one of the oldest on strategy in existence. If you go to Amazon, you’ll see over 1,600 reviews of this book. Among them, there is a common thread: that this book is about far more than just war.
It may have originally been written about war, but the principles within it apply to all areas of your life (seeing a pattern in the books I recommend? Good.). The interesting thing about this book is that it seems to give you something different each time, as you change and grow as a person throughout your life.
Many describe themselves as having read it once, and learned some things about military strategy. They read it again, and learn about interpersonal relationships. A third time reveals lessons about how to live a life of honour and integrity. As my sensei once said, “I used to think Sun Tzu wrote about war and Drake wrote about life. Now, I can see that it was Drake who wrote about war, and Sun Tzu about life.”
This is a (very) short, cheap book that should be on the shelf of anyone studying a fighting art. Read it, wait a while, then read it again. Rinse and repeat.
Wrapping it Up
As you can plainly see, I believe that if you’re going to studying martial arts throughout your life, it isn’t going to be for just the fighting element. No, it’s the personal/spiritual development that keeps you coming back for more, day-in and day-out, year after year. Long after your body fails you, the personal lessons you’ve learned will be there with you.
I share these books because I’ve read and re-read all of them. I get something new from them each time, and the lessons I’ve learned have helped to shape and guide who I am and who I am working to become. Rather than make into someone I’m not, these books encourage you to explore and truly understand who you are. I believe that when you get that, and you commit to just being the best version of that person, life just gets a whole lot better. So pick up one or a few of these books, give them a read, and let me know what you think!
Have you read any of the books on this list? Do you have another book you’d highly recommend? Share your thoughts in the comments section. I’m always up for suggestions on new martial arts books to read!